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Before my wife and I were married nine years ago, we met for an afternoon with the minister who would officiate at the wedding. My wife was raised Episcopalian, while I grew up Catholic—Irish Catholic, to be precise, which means I’m very stubborn about my guilt. At any rate, Christy and I had decided to get married in her hometown church, which is Episcopalian. If you’re Catholic and go to an Episcopal service for the first time, it feels very familiar, like running into an old friend who recently had a haircut. Of course, that’s just my opinion. To some stalwart Catholics, a more apt analogy is that an Episcopal service is like running into an old friend’s twin—they may look alike, but they’re fundamentally distinct.
Bob, our minister, wanted to know if we had agreed on whether we would raise our children Catholic or Episcopalian. I was expecting this. “Well,” I said, “I thought we’d expose them to both, and then, when they’re old enough, they could decide on their own.” Bob nodded, like he’d heard this before. “You’ll confuse your child,” he said. Christy nodded too. My wife is a very sensible person and had tried to sell me on the merits of her denomination. “It’s Catholic-lite!” she’d say. “The same, but with no guilt!” (If our debate got particularly animated, she’d trot out the Inquisition, the relegation of women, the abusive-priest scandals, the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust, etc.)
This was getting difficult. For the several billion of us on Earth who consider ourselves “religious” to some degree or another, the traditions to which we subscribe and which are inculcated in us over time become hard to let go, even in the face of sensible persuasion. They become definitional. In my late twenties, I spent a few years working in Cairo, where I got to know several American men who proposed to Egyptian women. Islam dictates that Muslims marry only other Muslims, so invariably these men would convert before the wedding. Love trumped dogma. Now that’s a conversion. Comparatively speaking, our dilemma was hardly a dilemma at all.
I’ve been thinking about all this recently because our son just turned two, and by the time you read this, he’ll have a little brother. I wish I could say my wife and I have resolved all these questions, but we haven’t. So it was reassuring to me, when I read “Unorthodox,” that I’m not alone. The stories of three iconoclastic pastors were a timely reminder that much of religion isn’t about the destination, but the journey. And that the answers to our questions are sometimes found in the unlikeliest of places.